A BERKELEY MUSICAL CHILDHOOD
We all know that civilization ends at the Berkeley city limits. —Berkeley Barb, 1962
Whiskey, ci-gareets, and wild, wild women!
That was my father, singing at the top of his lungs as he knotted his tie and got ready to go to work. With a final salute to the wages of sin he was out the door and off to catch the F train that rattled along tracks that ran through downtown Berkeley and across the Bay Bridge into San Francisco. There he worked a responsible nine-to-five job as a mechanical engineer and then returned home to my mother, my little brother Peter and me. Every evening and weekend he built cabinetry for our home in a basement workshop until either bedtime or the electric saw caused a fuse to blow, whichever came first.
Oh, why don’t I work like other men do?
How the hell can I work when the skies are so blue?
Hallelujah! I’m a bum. Hallelujah bum again,
Hallelujah! Give us a handout and revive us again.
Dad sang this song with particular gusto. He claimed that the words had been found scrawled on the wall of a Kansas City jail cell. I suspect that he loved it because he was so responsible and worked so hard. In any case, songs celebrating drinking and sloth were a major food group in the rich diet of folk music on which I was raised.
Jerry, my future father, was a social activist from an early age, as I would later emulate. When he was seventeen he drove an ambulance around New York City for a summer, collecting funds to support the freedom fighters in the Spanish Civil War, who were defending their democratically elected government from a revolt of fascist army officers supplied by Hitler and Mussolini. He was eager to join the Lincoln Brigade, the Americans fighting in Spain. However, he was told that he was too young to join. It was for the best; the ship he would have taken to Spain, the City of Barcelona, was torpedoed, and sank off the Spanish coast.
After serving in World War II, Jerry came to Chicago to his wartime fiancé, Edith Sherman. My future mother was twenty-two and had just earned a Masters degree that would allow her to practice the newly minted field of clinical psychology. Dad had pain her tuition with the winnings of a lottery ticket he had bought off a street urchin one drunken night in Panama. Long story. Six weeks later they were married. Jerry and his bride joined a mass migration of young men pulling up stakes and leaving home for the second time in a decade, this time armed with the G.I. Bill. My future father had been accepted by The University of California at Berkeley. The drive from their native New York to California in a cranky, beat-up, third-hand Nash Rambler would serve as their honeymoon.
Jerry, a plumber by trade, had spent most of the war as a SeaBee (for the initials C.B., or Construction Battalion.) During World War II these Navy men built airstrips, bridges, dams and other support systems in war zones. He was stationed in the humid jungles of the Admiralty Islands near New Guinea. Not allowed to disclose his location, he slipped it past the censors to his sweetheart by signing his name on his letters with a different middle initial until eventually they spelled out “Manus Island.”
Jerry was infuriated by the rampant racism among the Navy officers. While working in their office he managed to forge some papers that transferred him into a “colored” unit in a largely segregated Navy. Jerry fortuitously ended up bunking with Willie Johnson, one of the most respected and well known gospel singers of his time. Johnson was a founding member of the Golden Gate Quartet. They were featured on many albums, including some recorded by Alan Lomax for the Library of Congress with Leadbelly and Josh White. They sang in movies. They performed at Franklin Roosevelt’s 1941 inaugural celebration and appeared regularly on CBS radio. Now Willie Johnson, international star of stage and screen, was sweating and swatting mosquitoes alongside my father in the South Pacific. He taught my father many songs, including bluesy versions of “The Midnight Special,” “The Rock Island Line” and “Irene Goodnight” the way Leadbelly originally sang them. (“The line is ‘I’ll git you in my dreams,’ not ‘I’ll see you in my dreams,’” Dad would later instruct his two toddlers.)
Sidebar: After the war my father lost track of Willie Johnson. He attempted to find him, contacting everyone from Alan Lomax to the musician’s union, but eventually gave up the frustrating search. Johnson remained a mythical figure in my family history. After my father’s death in 1998 and with the advent of the internet, I decided to once again attempt to solve the mystery. However, information on the web proved to be so many red herrings. One day, while trawling the local library I discovered in a biography of Leadbelly a partial transcript of a 1980 interview with Johnson conducted by folklorist and gospel music expert Douglas Seroff. I immediately wrote to Seroff. I received by return mail two pages written on a manual typewriter. Willie Thomas “Bill” Johnson, he wrote, had died of cancer. Seroff wrote, “As a music historian I can say Bill Johnson was the most respected African American religious quartet singer of the twentieth century.” Later, on the telephone, he told me, “Anyone in the world of gospel music speaks Willie Johnson’s name with reverence.” End sidebar.
A year or two after the move to Berkeley that would prove to be permanent, my parents went to a San Francisco nightclub to hear the folk/blues singer Josh White. After the performance my father approached him, hoping that White would know where to find Willie Johnson. Like everyone else, White had no idea. My parents invited White to their home for dinner. He replied that he didn’t do social visits, but that he would come to perform for them and their friends.
“Josh White had trouble organizing his professional life,” my mother revealed in an exclusive interview. “He couldn’t refuse anyone’s invitations, and usually turned them into free concerts. His brother was supposedly his manager, but he didn’t manage anything! We quickly invited everyone we knew to come to our house. (One guest was graduate student Tim Leary.) Josh White sang all afternoon in our packed living room. He and his brother seemed disappointed that there was no hard liquor. Jerry went out and bought them some whiskey, and they were satisfied with the offering. It was an unforgettable event.”
“Folk music was very popular at that time,” my mother continued. “Thousands of veterans had experienced some of the big world outside their hometowns. We all had idealistic hopes that organizations such as the United Nations would mediate peaceful solutions to future conflicts. This new global awareness fueled interest in the traditional songs of other countries.”
Protest songs from the labor movement, the Spanish Civil War and other causes for social justice were a big part of my parents’ repertoire. I have a yellowed photo clipped from a 1943 Chicago newspaper showing my mother and two fellow graduate students from the University of Chicago on a picket line of striking meat-packing workers. The girls are bundled up in winter coats, wielding picket signs, laughing, whooping and leaping in the air on the snowy street in youthful enthusiasm. “The other strikers thought we were crazy,” my mother commented.
I made my advent into the world in 1951, less than a year after my father graduated from U.C. Berkeley. I arrived with a leg that required a number of surgeries, the first one at age fifteen months. My mother rocked me to sleep with a variety of French, Calypso and Caribbean lullabies in addition to Brahms’s and other standards. As soon as I was able to talk, I joined my parents in singing along with thick, shiny, deeply grooved records spinning madly at 78 revolutions per minute. They featured folk singers such as the Weavers, Barbara Dane, Cisco Houston and Burl Ives. My brother Peter, two years younger, joined in as well as soon as he was able.
My parents’ friend Dick Friedman described to me, “In 1956 Malvina Reynolds and I and others formed a folk music band through the Co-op called “The Green Label Singers.” The Co-op, a cooperative supermarket of which all local liberals were members, had three labels to distinguish levels of quality. Green was lowest quality. The green label string beans can said, “with tough and inedible strings.”
We sang on weekend car trips to Big Sur, lumbering down Highway Seventeen in a big green Plymouth through fields of yellow mustard flowers that are now Silicon Valley, through pungent eucalyptus groves and finally past the vast, shimmering silver-green artichoke fields surrounding Castroville. “Artichokes— 20 for $1.00” announced hand-written signs propped against card tables by the roadside. We’d always stop and buy bags of the succulent thistles from smiling Italian farmers in earth-streaked overalls.) Sometimes we sang around the dinner table. We sang gathered around the upright piano, my mother picking out the chords from the Fireside Book of Folk Songs. We reveled in the pure joy of belting out our favorites, my father’s voice husky, spirited and slightly out of tune, my mother’s more tentative and wildly out of tune, and Peter and I chiming in with those young voices that careen all over the map.
Every year or so, my mother piled me and Peter into the front seat of the Plymouth and drove us to Live Oak Park for a free children’s folk music concert. Our favorite performer was Pete Seeger. We sat cross-legged on the lawn, the soles of our saddle shoes and my knee-high metal brace jiggling lightly against the grass. I listened wide-eyed and open-mouthed as he strummed on his banjo and half-spoke and half-sang a circuitous South African yarn about a monster named Abiyoyo. Along with a few hundred other kids I shrieked with delighted horror and clapped my hands as he described Abiyoyo’s evil exploits.
I had no idea that Seeger was playing for free for kids in a park because the House Un-American Activities Committee had blacklisted him. When he had been summoned to testify before HUAC in 1955, his reply was, “I am not going to answer any questions as to my association, my philosophical or religious beliefs or my political beliefs, or how I voted in any election, or any of these private affairs. I think these are very improper questions for any American to be asked.” Seeger was found guilty on ten counts of refusing to answer HUAC’s questions by a federal court grand jury. Since that time he was radioactive to music promoters with real concert halls and paying audiences. Pete Seeger knew a thing or two about destructive monsters.
Seeger wrote to me in 2005 about those children’s concerts, “Some people were really hurt by the blacklist, but I kept singing for schools and colleges all through the ‘Frightened Fifties.’ [signed] Old Pete”
Another favorite was Appalachian mountain music singer Jean Ritchie. She performed at Berkeley Folk Festivals on the university campus. Ritchie’s influence would find its way into much of the music of the Sixties. Sam Andrew of Big Brother and the Holding Company told me, “Jean Ritchie loomed very large in our legend.” Her name also came up in conversation with musician Geoff Muldaur, He slumped in his seat in a Berkeley coffee house, going numbly through the motions of an interview shortly after the death of his long-time band-mate, Fritz Richmond. At the mention of Jean Ritchie he suddenly came to life, sitting up straight.
“I remember Jean Ritchie at Newport Folk Festival, in 1968. I skipped a B.B. King concert to go and to hear her instead, and Janis Joplin was also in the audience. Janis loved her.”
Richie would often offer special music sessions for children. She wrote to me much later, “Your letter brought back all those happy memories of the many Berkeley Festivals, where I sang and danced and told stories with so many of my friends. A humorous recollection: I was going to teach some Kentucky singing games to the kids, and we met that first time in a smallish gym-room….There were about fifteen or twenty kids and their moms, sitting on the floor. The next year sixty or seventy wanted to sing and dance, so we moved out of doors and played the games on the grass. The next year- there were about three hundred children! I was joined by Scottish folk singer Jean Redpath and country blues singer Mance Lipscomb, a lovely, gentle man. I had to go first, so I played my dulcimer and sang into the microphone. The kids sang along and clapped their hands, but they wanted to dance! So I said into the mic, “OK! Take hands and make a circle!” My land, this circle went up and down the hillsides, dipped into small hollows and came up the other sides- it was huge! What to do? The “big circle” was a mess- they were laughing and singing, trying to keep together. Suddenly it hit me — This isn’t working — so I yelled, “All to the bottom and sit down in front of us!” Jean Redpath did some rope-skipping rhymes and songs from Scotland. And then, Mance sat up on a high stool, strummed his guitar and sang, very softly into the microphone. Everyone, all ages, just sat still and listened, and blessed quiet descended.”